‘Super Bowl’ – Why Do We Call It That? Why Roman Numerals?

No sporting event captivates the American public quite like the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl Sunday has become a holiday of sorts and, according to the USDA, is “the second highest day of food consumption in the United States after Thanksgiving.”

People who have no use for sports and would never consider attending a Stanley Cup party or a Wimbledon party will spend Sunday evening at Super Bowl parties. Churches and community organizations will participate in the “Souper Bowl of Caring” to fight hunger and raise money for local charities. Advertisers save their most clever commercials for the Super Bowl broadcast, which is frequently the most watched television program in a given year.

The Super Bowl is one of America’s most prominent and valuable brands, and it owes its name to a children’s toy manufactured by Wham-O, the company responsible for popularizing the Hula Hoop and Frisbee.

Early History of The Super Bowl

The games we know now as Super Bowls I and II were both called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game when they were played. Back then “Super Bowl” was just a nickname.

When the American Football League (AFL) debuted in 1959, the more established National Football League didn’t consider the upstart AFL a threat. But by the mid 1960s the AFL had a TV deal with NBC and was competing with the NFL for top college players.

Rather than compete with the new league the NFL and commissioner Pete Rozelle explored the possibility of a merger. The two parties agreed to a merger in the summer of 1966, but the merger would not go into effect until 1970.

In the meantime, the AFL and NFL agreed to hold a common draft and to play a joint championship game.

Lamar Hunt: Were it not for him, you'd be planning a party for the 2012 AFC-NFC World Championship Game. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

The Genesis Of The Name “Super Bowl”

During merger meetings Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs (formerly the Dallas Texans) and one of the founders of the AFL, referred to the new championship game as the “Super Bowl.” Years later Hunt speculated on the genesis of the name:

My own feeling is that it probably registered in my head because my daughter, Sharron, and my son Lamar Jr. had a children’s toy called a Super Ball, and I probably interchanged the phonetics of “bowl” and “ball.”

In the early 1960s a chemist named Norman Stingley experimented with a synthetic material later known as Zectron®. He compressed the material “under 3,500 pounds of pressure per square inch” and ended up with a tiny ball that could bounce over buildings.

Stingley’s empolyer, the Bettis Rubber Company, expressed no interest in the toy, but Wham-O saw potential in the little bouncy ball. The company introduced the Super Ball in 1965 and sold 7 million that year.

At least a couple of those 7 million Super Balls went to Lamar Hunt’s kids.

They can clear three-story buildings, and they come in every color imaginable. (From SuperBalls.com)

Today we take for granted that “bowl” refers to a football game, usually a post-season or rivalry game. That tradition began when the Rose Bowl opened in 1923. The stadium was modeled after the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut, so named because the stands that circle the field give the stadium a bowl-like shape.

The Pasadena Tournament of Roses had hosted the “Tournament East-West Football Game” since 1902 at Tournament Park. When the Rose Bowl opened in 1923, the Tournament of Roses decided to call its annual college football game the Rose Bowl Game. The success of the Rose Bowl spawned many other college football “bowl” games.

The Sugar, Orange, Cotton, and Sun Bowls all debuted in the 1940s. Many others would follow in the 1940s and 50s. These games were called “bowls,” regardless of whether they were played in bowl-shaped stadiums.

Why Super Bowls Are Numbered

When representatives from the NFL and AFL settled on “Super Bowl” they decided to number the games. They wanted to avoid the confusion that came with having a championship game played in a different calendar year than the regular season. (Is this week’s game the 2011 Super Bowl, because it is the culmination of the 2011 season? Or is it the 2012 Super Bowl, because it will be played in 2012?)

Kansas City Chiefs historian Bob Moore credits the decision to go with Roman numerals instead of the more familiar Arabic numerals (i.e. “XLVI” instead of “46″) to none other than Lamar Hunt. Moore told the AP that Roman numerals make the game seem more important: “It’s much more magisterial.”

* * * * * * *

The Green Bay Packers, who had won three of the previous five NFL Championships won the first two AFL-NFL World Championship Games with ease, embarrassing their AFL counterparts. But in the third game, the first officially called the Super Bowl, Joe Namath and the AFL’s New York Jets upset the NFL’s Baltimore Colts 16-7, validating the merger and the new championship game whose name quite possibly derived from the name of a children’s toy fad.



About Josh Tinley

Josh Tinley writes the Away From The Action column at Midwest Sports Fans, covering all aspects of sport aside from what actually happens on the field, court, or track. Josh grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from the University of Evansville and Vanderbilt Divinity School. He is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports and the managing editor of LinC, a weekly curriculum for teens that explores the intersection of faith and culture. Josh lives outside Nashville with his wife, Ashlee, and children, Meyer (7), Resha Kate (5), and Malachi (3). He will not allow himself to die before the Evansville Purple Aces make another trip to the NCAA Tournament. Follow him on Twitter @joshtinley or send him an e-mail.

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